February has already been…interesting. And as we close in on one year since the pandemic began, we find ourselves deeply weary of being homebound and isolated and now Mother Nature conspires to double down with a blast of Arctic chill for many of us (even in unexpected places like Texas!)
Yet despite everything, we can still write. We can still make art. We can still connect with our fellow artists and for that I am grateful. This newsletter now has well over a 1,000 subscribers and I thank you so much for taking part as I draft and compile these essays and writing prompts for my craft book: The Art of Flash Fiction.
Today, I’d like to talk about story openings. So important to all forms of prose, but especially for flash. I devote one session on openings in all my Fast Flash workshops, challenging writers to create a powerful opening in one brief paragraph.
I will tell you those who are brand new to flash fiction don’t especially like this exercise! It seems impossible if not downright wrong. But it also serves as an “ah ha” moment when they overcome their resistance. Turns out being forced to do a lot with very few words is good for writers. It sharpens diction and word choice, hones our ability to recognize and trim the “fat” from our sentences, forces us to stay on point, and to write with power and conviction.
Learn to write flash well and you will be a stronger writer of all forms of prose.
So, regarding openings: The old adage of treating story writing as a party is so apt: "Arrive late and leave early." In the space of a flash fiction this is particularly crucial.
There are many ways to approach the opening, but you ought to try and orient your reader somehow. Who's telling this story? Where is he or she? Where are we in time? Just enough to ground your reader.
Once in awhile in workshop, a writer will get feedback from readers that their story opening is unclear or confusing and the writer will respond with something like, “That was my intent. I want the reader to feel confused in the beginning.”
No. No, you do not want that. Your reader, I assure you, does not want that. It’s the fastest way to alienate them and get them to stop reading.
“Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.” Kurt Vonnegut
In addition to orienting the reader, you want to draw her in. What is strange or compelling? What question are you setting up in the reader's mind? Perhaps your opening is so funny and peculiar your reader has no choice but to keep reading.
I don’t love the word "hook" as it sounds almost violent. Many writers make the mistake of believing the only way to hook a reader is to start with a bang, sometimes literally firing shots. I believe you can take a reader by the hand and still make her want to follow you. I believe there’s such a thing as a “quiet” opening even in flash fiction.
I love and admire this brief opening paragraph in the story, “Uncouple,” by Jan Stinchcomb (Originally published in matchbook, 2017, reprinted in Best Small Fictions, 2018):
“She got into his car because all sedans are the same in the dark but she wasn’t his wife and he wasn’t her husband. He had a moment of terror as he saw her green eyes light up. He smelled her perfume. She appeared completely ready.”
Boom. That’s all we need. We know through whose eyes we’re seeing this story. We know there are two characters who are not married. In very few sentences a tone of simmering trouble is established. Whatever’s happening here has not happened before and I for one am utterly compelled to keep reading.
Flash fiction openings are most effective when they prick up the readers' ears in some way. Consider how compelling a strong voice can be, as in the first few sentences of the story, “Your Are Not Like Other Children” by Angela Mitchell (Originally published in Necessary Fiction, 2017, reprinted in Best Small Fictions, 2018):
“You are not like other children. You prefer to wear suits, no sweat pants, baggy shorts, shirts with team logos. You are not a slovenly child, she tells the reporter. Your model mother lifts her chin, smiles. You are the shrunken image of him, a father who is too old to be your father…”
Not to mention the tone Mitchell quickly establishes. Also, the presence of the reporter quickly lets us know something newsworthy has happened.
Today I want you to write ONLY ONE PARAGRAPH, an opening to a story you've not written yet. Something you've not thought through yet. Your task is to only write an opening to a possible story you may or may not pursue later (but I hope you do!)
Your task in the space of one paragraph is:
1. Present us with one character in third person POV or first person, doesn't matter. If you can give a rough idea as to age & gender of the character, great.
2. Show us where this character is. Just generally, this needn’t be super detailed or specific.
3. Now convey something strange or unexpected or “off” or otherwise troubling. (“She is completely ready” in Stinchcomb’s opening, which sets an ominous tone or the odd suit-wearing child in Mitchell’s).
If you can, give your reader some sense of your character’s longing. This can be quite basic. Maybe their longing for the small thing in paragraph one leads us to the more fundamental longing that will be revealed later.
That's it. If you can include strong sensory detail so much the better. Sensory detail goes a long way in engaging your reader and setting tone. Try not to be too inside your character's head for now. Just give him a desire, a setting, and something “off” or unexpected. All in the space of one paragraph.
Happy writing, all!
Before you go, I have two small announcements:
I will be reading for Cheap Pop’s monthly-ish Round Robin event this Wednesday, February 17th, at 8:00 p.m. EST along with Joaquin Fernandez, Grace Q. Song, and Jim Warner. Email Robert James Russell at firstname.lastname@example.org for the Zoom link.
And I will be teaching “Turn and Face the Strange: Surrealism in Flash Fiction” for the Flash Fiction Festival co-sponsored by Hoot Review and A Novel Idea, to be held online Saturday and Sunday, February 27th & 28th! My workshop will run from 10:00 – 11:30 EST on Saturday, thus kicking off the whole weekend of awesome workshops, panels, and readings. I’d love for you to join me! Go HERE for all session information, schedules, and pricing as well as the link to register. You may sign up for individual workshops, a day pass, or an all-inclusive pass for the whole weekend!